Boris Johnson was right the first time. He resisted lockdown for as long as he could, regarding it as a draconian, untested experiment that might cause far more harm than good.

Far better, he thought, to ask people to keep their distance, work from home, self-isolate if anyone in their household fell sick. Why pass needless laws and ask the police to pursue workers, lovers and dog-walkers? It’s better, he said, to level with people. Give them the facts, offer advice and trust them to do what’s right.

Only now do we know how well this was working. Most people were staying home on government advice (and their own concern). The virus seems to have peaked by lockdown on 23 March. None of this was known at the time. Instead, we had panic and Prof Neil Ferguson saying that 250,000 would die unless rules were mandatory. So politically, the Prime Minister had no choice.

He has since remarked to colleagues how surprised he has been both at how easy it was, in the end, to take away people’s freedom – and how hard it is, now, to give it back.

Rather than a presumption towards liberty – that people should be free unless there’s a compelling reason to restrict – the coronavirus crisis has ushered in a new idea. That restrictions must stay, unless it can be proven that it’s safe to lift them.

It’s a pretty hard test to meet as the science is – still – pretty far from consensus. The government’s own scientific advisers are in safety-first mode, convinced that they’ll be blamed if anything goes wrong. Ministers find themselves up against a new foe: the precautionary principle.

So children are denied basic education because unions say classrooms are unsafe and ministers can’t prove otherwise. Most of the Cabinet regards the two-metre social distance regulation as a recipe for economic ruin.

There was no scientific evidence behind this distance in the first place, but it’s hard to prove that one metre is better because the whole thing is arbitrary. Having promised to follow ‘the science,’ ministers now find it hard to change policy without a scientific permission slip.

While Covid has brought all this to a head, the rise of the precautionary principle has been long in the making. Ulrich Beck, a German sociologist, pointed to this 34 years ago. As more governments adopted a safety-first attitude, he said, they could end up inflicting real harm in the name of averting catastrophe.

Risk calculation based on rationality might break down in the face of panic. As he argued: “it’s not going to be easy in the future – given the state’s promise of security and a mass media hungry for catastrophe – to prevent a diabolical power game.”

This is precisely what the Prime Minister found – except for mass media, read social media. He had people accusing him of mass murder because he would not lock people up. No one was talking about the toll of lockdown: the extra cancer deaths, the educational damage, the domestic abuse, the economic ruin. They seemed hard to imagine and deaths further afield even more so.

When the rich world locks down, crippling the world economy, the third world is hit worst. Some three million lives, by some estimates, several times the toll of Covid-19. All in the name of safety.

Lockdown was for just three weeks at first, to “buy time” for the NHS to get ready. We then stayed locked down to “flatten the curve.” Deaths peaked on 8 April and have fallen 90 per cent since. London has barely two dozen Covid diagnoses a day – yet the city’s 1.4 million children are not allowed to go to school.

Workers are still instructed to work from home, if they can. Police are asked to patrol train stations demanding that travellers wear a mask, when a passenger’s chance of sitting next to someone with the virus is negligible.

Germany has been more sensible. Its route out of lockdown has been to relax controls as long as the virus stays below a certain level in each region: 50 infections in a week for every 100,000 people.

Every part of Britain is safely below this level. The highest is in Bedford where the weekly diagnosis rate stands at 24 per 100,000. In East Suffolk and Sunderland, it’s just 0.4.

There are no longer ‘excess deaths’ detected in any age group. Four out of five UK Covid cases, now, report no symptoms. It is nigh-on impossible to justify Britain’s restrictions on today’s threat.

To suspend our liberties temporarily – to confront a terrifying threat to the country – was a reasonable request.

But as we approach the fourth month of lockdown, the case should be made considered anew. Instead, we see new restrictions churned out and rubber-stamped by parliament. Charles Walker, a Tory MP, pointed out that politicians can talk about the restriction of civil liberties but are not voting on it. What, now, is the case for such emergency government powers? How to justify the two-week quarantine imposed on those who arrive from overseas?

Every aspect of lockdown can be seen as cautious. But it’s a reckless kind of caution, from the viewpoint of the businesses that will go bust for lack of customers. It’s reckless for doctors treating patients for depression, given what we know about isolation and misery.

Some 1,500 paediatricians wrote to the government yesterday, urging ministers to consider how school closures will scar “the life chances of a generation of young people”. This isn’t something a scientific committee can judge or be expected to understand. It’s for a Prime Minister to assess.

It is odd to have to justify the case for civil liberty – but it’s about being safe, as well as being free. People can be trusted to behave responsibly in pandemics, as well as life in general – so minimising damage inflicted by crude mandatory lockdowns. Damage that the government has not begun to calculate, let alone work out how to repair.

The Prime Minister likes to say that no one has ever lost money betting on the courage and character of the British public. It’s time that he, himself, took that bet.

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